I learned a valuable lesson this week that I thought I’d share with you.
Let me ask you something: what is your job?
You’ve probably just pulled up a mental picture of a job description. The thing you tell people at a cocktail party when they ask you what you do. You’ve probably said something like “I’m a project manager for IT projects,” or “I work in accounts payable,” or “I’m a customer support specialist.” And, if I were to answer that question – I’d say “I run the operations of a professional services organizations.” It is what my job description says, after all.
But, the lesson I was reminded of this week is this – my job is also to make my manager’s life better. The way I do that is by making the operations of our professional services company run smoothly. For our project manager, the way she makes her manager’s life better is by ensuring the project stays on budget and on schedule. For our accounts payable clerk, he makes his manager’s life better by ensuring everything is paid on time and nothing is overpaid. Our customer support specialist handles customer issues in a manner that they don’t get escalated.
How do you do your job in a way that makes your manager’s life better? Think about it for a minute. How are you contributing to your manager in a way that makes their job easier?
What value are you adding for your manager?
More Personal than Objectives
There are a lot of articles and books that talk about how important it is to ensure that employees are able to tie their objectives to the corporate objectives. Can each employee tie what they do to the overall success of the company?
Having spent my entire career in back office type roles, I know first hand that it can really be a stretch to do this sometimes. Many times,, the company objectives are sales related, which means that if you aren’t in a sales or marketing role, it can be hard to see how what you do contributes to the company objective. It can sometimes feel like the company doesn’t value your role as much as the sales team because all eyes are focused on the corporate objective of growing revenue.
If you struggle to tie your work to your company’s objective, what I’m suggesting is that you change your perspective. Don’t think of it in terms of objectives. Think of it in terms of tying what you do every day to how that makes your manager’s job easier – up the chain then everyone is contributing to the company’s objective.
This takes something a bit esoteric – objectives – and makes them more personal. Finding ways to make your manager’s life easier brings it to the personal level. I think it is also more fulfilling. Let’s be honest – most of us work for companies with objectives that aren’t really all that fulfilling. That’s ok – you can get your fulfillment through other means. One of which is by becoming an employee that makes life easier for others.
Although this is a philosophy I’ve had for a long time, I was reminded of it this past week. We’ve been really under the gun for the last few months at work because we’ve had some record quarters and we are understaffed. Everybody is swamped an that inevitably means things start falling through the cracks. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out who to get us back on track and wasn’t coming up with any great solution.
Then, I changed my approach and asked myself – what could I do to make Scott’s life better. Scott, as you might guess, is my manager. Once I started thinking of it in those terms, I came up with two ideas that could really make a difference. After spending some time on those two ideas, I narrowed in on the one that I could really sink my teeth into and moved ahead with it.
There is something about putting the question into human terms that really opened up a new set of options for me. Rather than solving this esoteric problem, I was simply trying to help Scott. And by helping Scott, I free him up to use the time on something else. And, if that continues up the chain of command, then we will achieve our corporate objectives.
Spend some time this week thinking about what you are doing to make your manager’s life easier. Not only will you feel more fulfilled by doing this, you’ll also be more successful at work because manager’s reward employees who make their job easier.
Also, put this technique into your toolkit so that the next time you are stuck, you might be able to use it to become unstuck like I did this week.
People love to give help. Some of the most active posts I see on Facebook are those that are tagged “asking for a recommendation.”
But, when it comes to our job, sometimes we can be hesitant to ask for help. This hesitancy can be caused by our own personal beliefs, or it can be caused by the culture that we are part of. We covered the personal beliefs about asking for help in Episode 77 and I encourage you to go back and give that episode a listen.
Today, we are going to talk about the cultural aspects of companies that can lead us to resist asking for help when we need it.
Asking Can Be a Roadblock at Work
A lot of times, someone who wouldn’t hesitate to ask for help on a personal matter – anybody got a plumber you would recommend? – will hesitate to ask for help in a work setting because we underestimate our coworker’s willingness to help.
Or, you may think to yourself – ‘why would they help, it isn’t their responsibility?’
I challenge you to think about it if the tables were turned when a coworker comes to you asking for help, how do you feel?
I almost always get a positive boost of energy from it. Either I’m happy to have been able to lighten someone else’s load, or a lot of times what they are asking for help with is something that falls within my strengths – within my happy place – so the time I spend helping them is really a welcome diversion.
Don’t bring your pre-conceived notions about their willingness to help with you. The worst thing they can do is say no, and you are in the same position you were already in.
We Feel Asking Makes Us Look Incapable
Sometimes we don’t ask for help because we fear looking like we aren’t capable. If I ask for help I look weak. Or, if I ask for help, I look like a slacker. The thing is – people are smart.
They know the underlying motivator for your request for help. If your motivation is learn and grow then they know that you are coming from a positive place and are not going to have negative thoughts about your capabilities.
If your motivation is to get somebody else to deal with it so you don’t have to – then to be honest, the reputation is likely well-deserved.
But, chances are, if you are hesitant to ask for help because you are concerned about your reputation, then the likelihood you are actually operating from a motivation that deserves that reputation is pretty low.
People do not jump to the conclusion that somebody is not capable just because they ask for help. Again, think about when someone asks you for help. Do you automatically make an assessment that they are incapable? I really doubt it.
Design a Culture of Asking
Sometimes, we are part of a culture designed without obvious mechanisms for asking. If there is no built-in way to ask questions – or to forces us to ask questions – we can just get into a routine where we don’t.
Software developers are really good at building in mechanisms that encourage asking for help. They created the concept of the daily stand up where the entire purpose of the meeting is to touch base every day and tell your team what you did yesterday, what you will do today, and where you are blocked. The 1st two items are about communicating status, but the 3rd makes it ok to ask for help.
It doesn’t just make it ok – it makes it mandatory.
It makes it normal.
It makes it just another part of the day.
Think about your department. Are there built in processes to make asking for help a regular part of the job? Could you add something to your existing process that would help trigger people to ask? It doesn’t have to be a daily stand -up. Lots of departments have some kind of team meeting already established. This could be added to the agenda: ‘Is there anything that anyone needs help with or is stuck on?’
A quick round-robin of the team would give everyone a chance to surface their issues.
Even if you aren’t in charge of the agenda for the meeting you can send a note to the owner of the meeting with a suggestion. You can totally blame it on me. Tell them that you list to the podcast and thought this was an idea that could benefit the whole team and you just wanted to offer the suggestion for improvement to help the team uncover areas where one person on the team is blocked and another person on the team might be able to help. The worst that could happen is they say thank you but no thank you.
Know What You are Asking For
Sometimes we don’t ask for help because we don’t know how to ask. The 1st part of knowing how to ask is to make sure you are clear about what it is you are asking for. That seems really obvious, but the reality is that sometimes we aren’t so sure ourselves.
Do you need help to think through a problem?
Do you need help for a certain skill set that isn’t in your wheelhouse?
Do you need help getting a specific task done?
Do you need advice?
Or a different perspective?
Do you need an editor?
Do you need someone to take ownership?
If you make your request for help too general, it makes it harder for the other person to assess whether they can help you.
We have a tendency to assign mind-reading skills to those around us. Rather than assuming someone else can read your mind and magically solve your problem, spend some time getting clear about what it is you need from them.
So, what I want you to take away from this week’s episode is that asking for help should be a normal part of your day. Don’t stress yourself out because you aren’t asking for help when you need it. Challenge those reasons in your head for not asking. Don’t assume what others may or may not be willing to do to help and don’t assume others are mind readers and should know what you need help with. Whether you are in a leadership position or not, you can create a culture of asking by becoming a person who asks.
I used to work with someone who never asked for help. I’m pretty sure she saw it as a strength. She felt like it was important to give off the impression that she could do it all and never need to ask for help.
I’ve never been that way myself. I’ve never felt life asking for help makes me look weak. For me, its quite the opposite. I feel that asking for help makes me better. If I don’t know the answer to something, asking someone who does expands my world. Asking for help means that I’m constantly learning something new. And, my experience has been that others respect me for it. Rather than seeing me as weak, they see me as curious, engaged, and collaborative.
It is similar when asking for help with tasks. It is easy to feel guilty asking someone to do something you are supposed to do. After all, it is your job to get it done. Asking someone else to do your job can seem like taking advantage. But again, my experience is that others don’t see it that way. They are happy to help.
The thing I think is key to this idea of asking for help is balance. When you ask for help in order to get out of work altogether, you are just pawing off your work. You are a slacker and your coworkers will eventually catch on. Or, if you are constantly asking others to help you solve problems but your motivation is to not learn, grow, or elevate the outcome, then again, you will be seen for what you are – pawing off your work.
So, at one extreme, if you ask too much with an underlying motivation of getting out of work, you will damage your relationships and your reputation.
At the other extreme, if you are like my old coworker and you never ask for help, you are likely to get a reputation as someone who doesn’t meet commitments. This coworker, I’ll call her Mary, spends a significant amount of time apologizing for her lack of meeting expectations.
So, at the other extreme, if you never ask for help, you will damage your relationships and your reputation because your coworkers will come to see you as unreliable. And, you’ll have to added impact of causing yourself an awful lot of stress.
The key to asking for help is to find balance. You need to be comfortable asking for help when you need it, but not so comfortable that you end up asking all the time.
In order to find that balance, the other part of the equation is to give help. The thing about asking for help is that it involves at least 2 people. Anytime you ask for help, someone else is giving help. You’ve created a kind of transaction between the two of you.
In order to achieve balance, you need to be willing to 1) ask for help when you need it and 2) give help when asked.
If you think of asking for help and giving help as a matrix with 4 quadrants, you can understand 4 different personas that Wayne Baker outlines in his book All You Have to Do is Ask: How to Master the Most Important Skill for Success.
If you are a Scale My Skills subscriber, you’ve got the matrix and personas along with other resources in your inbox today. If you’d like to sign up for Scale My Skills, you can do so on our home page.
Overly Generous Giver
If you give help frequently, but ask for help rarely, you are an overly generous giver. Overly generous givers get a self esteem boost from helping others. They revel in the adrenalin boost they get from helping others purely for the sale of being helpful. If you are familiar with Enneagram, these are the Enneagram 2s. The issue is overly generous givers will eventually burn-out. And, they can be seen as unproductive because they spend so much time helping others that they don’t get their own stuff done.
If you ask for help infrequently and you give help infrequently, you are a lone wolf. Lone Wolves are big on self reliance. They see life as a race to the top, which means that their relationships take a hit. And, because success in life and especially in business, is heavily dependent on our relationships with others, they usually fall short in their race to the top.
If you ask for help frequently, and you give help infrequently, you are the Selfish Taker persona. The Selfish Taker rarely pays generosity back. In the short run, they may see their star rising because it looks like they are accomplishing so much. But, in the long run, those that they are taking advantage of figure out that they are just pawning off their work and will eventually stop helping.
If you ask for help frequently and give help frequently you are a Giver-Taker persona. Giver-Takers are very productive. When they ask for help, their motivation is to learn and grow. When they give help, they are creating space for the person who asked for help to also be productive. And because they have a reputation for helping, they generally have a wide circle of contacts who have a high level of respect for them.
This week, I challenge you to assess yourself on the asking for help continuum. Which of the personas are you? How can you move more toward the Giver-Taker persona?
We are introducing a new segment to the podcast called Career Day. In these episodes, I’ll be interviewing someone about their job with the goal of helping you learn:
Even if it isn’t a career you aren’t interested in for yourself, it is always helpful to have a better understanding of the roles that people around you may fill.
Today’s career is Project Management and I’m interviewing Chris Schain, who is an experienced project manager, now in a role where he is managing project managers. Chris brings a prospective that will help you understand what makes a successful project manager, and helps give an understanding of what a potential career path in project management may look like.
If you aren’t in accounting or finance, you may think that you don’t need to understand financial terms. After all, they are the experts, so what can you possibly gain by understanding your company’s financial numbers?
But, the thing is, everyone in your management chain is thinking about margin. And, your job is to make your manager’s life easier, so if you understand financial concepts, you better understand what is driving your management team’s decisions. And, when you understand why your management team is making the decisions they make, you put yourself in a better position to make their life easier.
You don’t have to be an expert – I agree – leave that to the accounting department. But, if you have an understanding of the basic concepts, you will be more successful in your career. You will also be able to make better decisions for yourself because you will be able to anticipate what your management team will do next.
The concept we are going to cover this week is margin. Margin is the amount of money left after you pay for all the cost.
Revenue minus cost equals margin.
In personal terms, we call it savings. Your revenue – your hourly wage or salary – minus your costs – taxes, rent, food, ballet lessons, orthodontist bills, car payment, and that Amazon Prime fee. What remains is your margin, or savings. For companies, it is the same. They take in revenue through sales and they have expenses. What is left over is margin.
And, as you can probably guess, the goal of every management team is to have the highest possible margin. So, as your management team makes decisions part of their decision involves understanding the impact on margin. I don’t mean to give the impression that it is the only factor, or the most important factor. Every business and every leadership team is different, so how your management team makes decisions will be unique. But, they are considering margin, so if you can understand this aspect of your company, you will be better able to understand one of the levers in your management team’s arsenal.
Margin, on the surface is a fairly easy concept to understand, but I’ve found over the course of my career that people really struggle with it. I think it is because there are so many factors that influence it. It is absolutely relative to the specific situation, so you must always understand the larger context of the business in order to understand the impact on margin.
To help paint a picture for you, I’m going to use a familiar example that we can all relate to. We are going to assume the roll of a hamburger fast food restaurant. Now, our restaurant has a standard burger that is made up of a bun, meat patty, lettuce, pickle, tomato & ketchup.
When a customer walks into the restaurant, they can see the price of this burger up on the board. They pay $2.99 for the burger and that $2.99 becomes our revenue.
We have a cost associated with delivering this burger to them. 1st, there is the cost of the ingredients. The bun, the meat patty, the pickle, tomatoes, lettuce, and ketchup. The accounting department tells us that the cost of these ingredients is 75 cents. So, we take in $2.99 in revenue and we spent 75 cents on the ingredients. You might think that the margin is 2.99 minus 75 cents. But, keep in mind that we also paid someone to make the burger. We also paid for the electricity to operate the grill. We paid rent on the building. We paid the manager to oversee the person who made the burger.
So, you have to include all of these costs. For our burger joint, let’s say all of these costs add up to $2.50. So, we sell the burger to our customers for $2.99 – which is our revenue. And it costs us $2.50, which means our profit is 49 cents.
Again, margin is what is left over when you subtract cost from revenue.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the ways margin can be impacted. Let’s say a customer comes in with a coupon for 50 cents off their burger. This means that our revenue is going to go down from $2.99 to $2.49. But, our cost didn’t change. It still costs us $2.50 to produce and deliver the burger. Now, the margin is $2.49 minus $.50, or negative 1 penny. So, when revenue goes down but costs remain the same, margin also goes down.
Think about ways that might happen at your company. What are the scenarios where revenue might decrease without costs changing? What is the equivalent of a 50 cent off coupon for your business?
Let’s look at another example. A customer comes in and orders a burger and asks or extra pickles. They don’t have a coupon, so they are paying $2.99 for the burger. This means that our revenue is $2.99. But, they asked for extra pickles. The cost of adding extra pickles to the burger is 5 cents. Now, the total cost has gone up from $2.50 to $2.55. So, even though our revenue stayed the same, our cost increased. This makes our margin 44 cents. $2.99 revenue minus $2.55 cost is 44 cents. Our margin has decreased from 49 cents to 44 cents.
Think about ways that might happen at your company. What are the scenarios where costs might increase? What is the equivalent of extra pickles for your business?
What if a customer walks in and orders a burger and tells you to hold the pickles? Sine we know it costs 5 cents to add pickles, we know that it saves 5 cents to hold the pickles. So, the cost of the burger goes from $2.50 to $2.45. Margin is now 54 cents. $2.99 in revenue less the reduced cost of $2.45 gives us a bigger margin of $2.54.
Think about ways that might happen at your company. What are the scenarios where costs might decrease? What is the equivalent of holding the pickles for your business?
Understanding the different levers that impact margin for your company helps you understand how healthy the business is. It may also help you understand ways that you can help impact margin by either improving revenue or reducing cost so that margin is increased.
There are a lot of various factors that can influence margin, and if you’d like to explore the topic more, I encourage you to check out our financial acumen curriculum, which is a collection of all of our episodes that explore the topic of company financials.
So, your homework this week is to spend some time thinking about your company’s margin. What are the things, like coupons, that impact revenue? What are the things, like extra pickles that impact the cost? Can you see how your management team is making decisions to move these levers in order to help improve margin for your company?
Customer Experience is everybody’s job, although sometimes it might be hard to see how you can influence it. It may seem like you can’t make an impact if you aren’t in a leadership position, but that isn’t the case. Today, we are going to talk about some ways you can make an impact on customer experience, regardless of your role or title.
First, lets talk about the customer journey. Step into your customer’s shoes and picture what their journey looks like.
So, you see, the customer experience is a journey, not a single event. Some stops along the way are more important than others. But, all of them form an experience for the customer that places your company into some category in their mind.
They might categorize you as fun to do business with. Or difficult to do business with. They may consider you to be easy to do business with. Maybe their experience is that you are organized & professional. Or flexible and scrappy.
The important point to understand is that – whatever their experience – they form it as they walk their journey and encounter each little step along the way.
This journey that I’ve described is really a system. A system is a group of processes that are typically cross -functional & span several different disciplines. Each individual process may have a need to be improved, but that improvement may or may not improve the overall system. If you think about your particular role in a process, in order to understand how your process fits into the overall system, you need to look upstream and downstream.
Upstream, what are the processes that feed into your process? Those processes, although potentially completely outside of your area of control, are part of the same system you are. If you want to improve the process, that is within your are of control, you will do a better job of it if you consider the processes that feed into your process. When you understand your process within the context of the larger system, you have more options open to you. If you’d like to learn more about systems vs. processes, you can listen to episode 11.
So, when it comes to the customer journey, spend some time thinking about the system that they enter into when they start down the path to solve their problem. At some point along their journey, they are going to participate in a process that you are part of. Become curious about how they perceive the process. A customer survey score doesn’t give you the full picture. Four stars tells you that they were generally happy, but now why. They might be generally happy because the prices was so low that the fact that everything else sucked wasn’t that important to them. By becoming curious about their journey, you can start to identify ways to change your process in order to improve their experience. And, when you do it with the bigger context of the system, it is likely to have a greater impact.
Remember that I mentioned that all of the steps along the journey have different levels of important to the customer? When you get curious, you begin to understand which processes have more weight. In customer journey map terminology, these are called ‘moments of truth.’ Getting a moment of truth right has the biggest impact. Improving the customer experience as moments of truth is where you will get the biggest impact. Is your process a moment of truth for your customer?
If we go back to the idea that individual processes make up a larger system and that the system for customer experience is defined as their journey through their doing business with you then you can see that it becomes important for them to have a single experience. As a customer, they don’t care that they are moving from the marketing department to the sales department to the legal department to the delivery department to the support department. They are doing business with Company X – your company – and the distinction between departments is irrelevant. But, many times, we don’t design the customer journey in that way. Because we are organized into departments, we approach our processes from our departmental silo and often forget to blend it into the larger customer experience system.
So, this week, I challenge you to spend some time thinking about your customer’s journey. Where do your processes fit into that journey? What experience does the customer have with your part of their journey? What are the experiences they have before they get to your process? These are the upstream processes that feed into yours. What experience does the customer have with those processes? Is the experience consistent? What about the processes downstream from you? When you’ve done your job, where will the customer go next? What will that experience be, and how consistent is it with the experience they just had with you? What are some ways you can improve the experience? What are some ways you can ensure their experience is consistent?
You know, the customer journey, at its highest level is the same at every single company for every single customer. First, they identify that they have a need to fill. Then they figure out their options and evaluate them. Then they make a decision. They you deliver what you promised. Then you provide some type of ongoing service that hopefully results in them making another purchase in the future. Its that simple when you think about it. But, oh is the reality so much more complicated. An, this is where the real work of customer experience begins.
Every job has a process – whether it is well documented or not, effective or not, enforced or not. And, whether you are the kind of person who likes process or not, you still follow a process. For those of you who get itchy when talking about a process, we might also call it guidelines. You have some set of guidelines you use to get yourself from point A to point B each day.
I have a saying that I say frequently to my team: trust the process.
What I mean when I say it is that, when you question why something is the way it is, you must trust that the process handled it appropriately, and therefore there is a good reason for it.
Trust that there are rules and guidelines in place to help get each process from point A to point B in a manner that results in the best possible solution given the situation.
Trusting the process doesn’t mean that there is no room for improvement. To design a process you can trust, there are a few guidelines you can follow.
Apply the rules at decision points
First, make sure the rules or guidelines that are applied at decision points are at the right decision points. In other words, in any process there are going to be critical decision points and not critical decision points. In order to be effective, rules should only be applied at the critical ones.
Make the rules specific to the audience
Next rules or guidelines need to be tailored to the people who will use them rather than being too general. Many times, rules get designed – or I should say over designed – because the designer wants to cover every possible scenario that could ever occur. This dilutes the importance of the rule and inevitably people start to ignore it or have trouble understanding how to apply it in their situation.
Make sure the rules stand up to scrutiny
Good rules in a process are built on a foundation that stands up to scrutiny. The reason that rules are put in place is because:
So, think about your process and the rules or guidelines that help ensure that you can trust the process. Are the rules at the critical decisions points.? Do they help navigate situations where there isn’t a clear right answer? Are they specific enough to give direction or have they been diluted to try and account for every eventuality?
Building in rules that allow you to trust the process will make everyone involved more efficient.
Meetings, in my opinion get a bad wrap in the corporate world. People seem to hate going to meetins and sometimes go to great lengths to avoid them. I get why people feel that way. Many times, it is because they feel like they aren’t getting anything out of them.
Understand Your Purpose In The Meeting
I’m a big proponent of not attending a meeting that isn’t going to be of any value to you. You should be sure you understand what your role is and what the purpose of attending is. For example, if you are attending just to be informed, then do you understand why being informed about the topic is beneficial to you?
A lot of companies or departments have a regular all hands type meeting where the head of the group covers the performance for the last quarter or talks about strategic initiatives, or other topics that have to do with overall performance. In this type of meeting, your purpose for being there is to be informed. This is your chance to hear about what is going on in the company in areas you may not be involved with daily. These are things that may not directly impact you, but they impact the overall company, which is something you should have an interest in.
Sometimes, your role at a meeting is to serve as a subject matter expert. The topic may be 99% unrelated to you, but in the event someone needs an answer to a question that only you can answer, you are there.
Understand Their Purpose For Being Invited To The Meeting
It is important, if you are the one calling the meeting that you have a good handle on why you are including the people you are including. As you create the meeting invite and add people to it, something is going through your mind about why you’ve included them. You should consider the fact that, if you were on the receiving end of the meeting you’d want to understand how this meeting is a good use of your time. So, you should ensure that the people you invite will understand as well.
Many times, when I schedule a meeting, I also send an email explaining what the meeting is about and what role each of the attendees is going to play. I will draft the email and put together the meeting invite and then send them both at the same time. That way, the recipient gets a meeting invite and an email from me together, which is likely to peak their interest. I think this results in people actually reading the email to find out what the meeting is about. I think this, then, results in their attendance at my meeting having a better understanding rather than just showing up with no expectations.
Be a Moderator
Another thing that you should do if you are hosting a meeting is remember that your role as host means that you need to serve as the moderator of the meeting.
You need to keep it on track. This could mean following an agenda. It could mean serving as a time keeper. It could mean making sure that everyone has a chance to participate.
Since it is your meeting, you are in charge, and you need to be confident about managing the meeting so that you accomplish your objective.
It may be that there are people in the meeting who outrank you, which could make you feel uncomfortable about taking control. This is part of growing in your career. You need to learn how to be comfortable being in charge when your title doesn’t make you the highest ranking person in the room.
You need to find a balance between coming across as rude and asserting yourself in the situation. This is where you can say something like “this is a great discussion, but I want to be cognizant of everyone’s time and be sure we can get to all of the topics on our agenda, so maybe we can schedule a follow up meeting to further explore this topic.”
Another tool I use is to say at the start of the meeting, “we have a lot to cover today and I expect some of these topics might bring out some passionate discussion, so I’m just going to warn you that I will be managing our time very closely in order to ensure we are going to be able to get through all of the topics.”
When you tell people up front, they won’t find it rude if you then follow through.
Another tip that I’d throw out there is if your meeting agenda gets just completely thrown out the window – to acknowledge it and move on. For example, if the discussion carries you away from the agenda but for whatever reason you are going to allow it, you can say, “you know, we’ve completely gotten away from our agenda, but this discussion is important, so I’ll just schedule another time to complete the original agenda.”
It may seem like overkill or micromanaging to say these things out loud, but what it does is ensures that everybody hears the same message. It may be obvious to you because it is your meeting, but you can never assume that it is obvious to everyone else.
Agenda vs Objective
One of the things I’ve noticed about meetings is that we are not always clear about the purpose of the meeting. For those who are attending, what are we expecting? Are they attending to be informed? To be consulted? To make a decision?
Most basic tips for proper meetings will tell you to include an agenda. But, I would argue that it is important to also be very explicit about what the objective of the meeting is. The agenda will give your invitees an understanding of the content of the meeting, the objective will tell them why their attendance is important.
If the purpose of your meeting is to influence, you should consider whether you need to hold pre-meetings with individual stakeholders who you think may be resistant to your idea or may need time to consider your proposal. The meeting before the meeting is a critical influence tool, but it is also a critical tool for making meetings more effective. There is nothing worse than having your meeting derailed by 1 person who is either resistant or reacts in a resistant manner because they need time to process your proposal. So, if you have a proposal, you should consider which meetings are necessary before the formal meeting.
If the purpose of your meeting is to brainstorm ideas, you may consider asking someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in the topic to facilitate the meeting. This will allow you to fully participate in brainstorming and leave the logistics to someone else.
My final tip is related to recurring meetings. If you are the host of a recurring meeting, make sure you check in to see if the original purpose of the meeting is still valid. A lot of meetings get set up to serve a specific purpose but remain long after the purpose is no longer relevant. It has really just become a habit and the meeting could be eliminated all together.
In the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey, habit #2 is to begin with the end in mind. On the surface, it sounds like he is talking about setting goals, but what he talks about is more fundamental that that.
Begin with the end in mind means that you must have a clear picture of what you are trying to accomplish in order to get there. That seems pretty straight forward, but it is actually very nuanced. The problem is, a lot of us aren’t self aware enough to really understand what it is we are aiming for. We may have a general picture in our mind and we may think of it every once in a while, but we aren’t consciously designing our outcomes.
Let me give you an example from my life.
I got my degree in accounting and I worked in an accounting job for maybe 5 years of my entire career. I eventually figured out that what I wanted to accomplish had nothing to do with accounting. I was moving forward in my career – just not in the one that was right for me.
That was back in the early days of my career. Once I got onto the right path, my career has been a consistent accomplishment toward the vision I had of my goal. Then, about 4 or 5 years ago, I started to see a new vision. The objective was shifting and the picture has gotten clearer, although I’m still refining it. Starting this podcast is part of it.
Covey talks about all creations being created twice.
The 1st creation is your mental image of it.
The 2nd creation is the physical manifestation of it.
If that 1st creation isn’t made consciously, you aren’t the one driving the objective.
For me, I went into accounting mostly because it was what everyone around me was doing. I knew in college that I didn’t want to be an accountant. I liked business and I was good at a lot of the skills I needed for accounting – so that’s the direction I took. I didn’t know enough about the real business world to define my outcome any other way. So, my 1st vision for my career, although perfectly legitimate on paper, turned out not to be the right vision once I translated it from my mental image into a physical career.
Although I thought I knew what I wanted to accomplish, I was wrong. And, I think this is natural. I don’t feel like I failed because I didn’t stick with accounting. Once I got out into the business world and saw what other jobs were out there that could use my skills, I was able to see a different vision for myself. Once I saw a new vision, I was ready to start moving in that direction.
I think the important lesson is to look up every once in a while and ask yourself if the world you are creating is actually the one you want to be creating.
This is going to require a lot of self awareness.
Self awareness is something we talk about a lot on People Move Organizations because it is so foundational to a successful career.
Self awareness is knowing one’s internal states, preferences, resources, and intuitions.
The reason it is important that you have self awareness is that you have to have a good handle on yourself in order to be able to set a goal or a vision that will be fulfilling for you. It is so easy to fall into a habit or a pattern where you get up and go to work every day and do what you do.
Whether it brings you joy and fulfillment or not.
If you aren’t absolutely miserable, you aren’t likely to think about your vision. Defining the end state is about knowing yourself well enough to know – well, not just know – to really take positive action toward, to be motivated to act toward an end goal that will bring you fulfillment.
Daniel Goldman summed it up nicely in his book Working with Emotional Intelligence, “Self awareness is a building block of commitment: if you don’t know you own guiding principles, you may not recognize when something is or isn’t a fit.”
As you become self aware, you start to see where something isn’t a fit and you can start to create a new vision for yourself. Again, Habit 2 is: begin with the end in mind.
When was the last time you spent time thinking about your vision for yourself?
Without the vision for where it is you are trying to get to, it is impossible to take the next step – which is making progress toward the goal.
Begin with the end in mind is for processes too
Do you have a problem at work that you are trying to solve? A process that isn’t working well? Before you can fix it, you’ve got to be clear on what end state you are trying to get to.
Just this week, I found myself spinning my wheels on a problem. I feel like the process we use for forecasting our staffing levels isn’t working as well as it could. I was trying to figure out why it isn’t giving me a result I could trust and I found myself with 10 spreadsheets open and 10 partially completed analyses – none of which gave me an answer. I was in analysis paralysis. So, I literally said out loud to myself “what exactly are you trying to accomplish?” I had lost track of the end result and had to remind myself.
Whether you are using Habit 2 for big life changing decisions of for thorn-in-your-side tactical problems at work, make sure you regularly step back from the daily grind and ask yourself what are you trying to accomplish?
Before you can actually accomplish anything, you’ve got to have a vision for what it is you are moving toward.
And, don’t beat yourself up when you vision changes over time. It is natural for your priorities to change and therefore your vision to change as well.
I find the social science of the brain to be a very interesting topics, which means I read a lot of books about it. It is a fairly new science, and scientists admit that there is still a lot to learn, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take what is known and apply it to the way we work.
Work, by its definition, involves other people. So, the more you know about how other people think, the more you can tailor your work in a manner that will be more likely to be positively accepted by the people you work with.
Our social connections are necessary for our survival – not just at work, but in life. If you think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the lowest level is the physiological stuff, and then comes safety, and next is social. Without social connections, you can’t move up into the hierarch where you get into esteem and self-actualization.
Default Mode Network
And the science supports this idea. There is a region in our brain called the Default Mode Network. This are of the brain becomes active whenever you think about people and your relationship to them. Science shows that 2 day old babies have this Default Mode Network. They don’t have social networks yet, but their brain is already wired for them.
When everything is going well, there is nothing to worry about. But lets be honest – most of us don’t go for very long without running into some kind of social pain. A fight with a spouse. A misunderstanding with a co-worker. Feeling like someone else is getting credit for something we did. Somehow, we don’t always give this the same amount of weight we give physical pain. But, the science proves otherwise. Your brain doesn’t distinguish between physical pain and social pain.
When you have a stomach ache or a headache, you attribute them to a specific part of your body. But, we know from hundreds (or more) of examples that placebos can treat these physical ailments which means that the stomach ache was really in your brain, not your stomach. So, just because social pain doesn’t have a physical spot on your body that you can point to, doesn’t mean it isn’t as real to your brain.
So, keep this in mind the next time you get into a tussle with someone. For both of you, the pain felt is as real as if you had stubbed your toe. Give yourself the grace and space to deal with the pain. Give the other person the same.
Your Brain Determines Your Tolerance For Pain
Science also shows that there is a genetic reason that some people seem to be able to deal with pain better than others. We all have a mu-opioid receptor that determines how we feel and handle pain. Depending on which receptor you get, you will be more or less sensitive to pain. Its funny because I think humans have known this for a long time even though we’ve just recently gotten the science to prove it.
Have you ever heard someone say “I’ve got a high tolerance for pain?” While someone else may say “I’ve got a low tolerance for pain?”
I’d bet if we tested those two people, we’d find that they have different mu-opioid receptors. I think they key takeaway here is that if someone else has a lower or higher tolerance for pain – which includes social pain – you should remember that it is genetic. No different than the color of their eyes. Rather than spending time judging them, recognize the difference and understand that we are all genetically driven when it comes to tolerating pain.
Theory of the Mind
Another area that brain science has made strides in recently is the development of a concept called Theory of the Mind. Theory of the Mind is this thing that happens when we realize that other people have their own thoughts that drive their behavior. We can understand that what another person believes is driven by their own experiences and beliefs. So, for example, when you are in a small store and you walk up to the counter to pay, you understand in your mind that the store employee will interpret you standing there to mean you are ready to check out so they will stop stalking the shelf and come over to ring you up. Neither of you had to tell the other what you were thinking. Your Theory of Mind allowed you both to draw conclusion s about what each other would conclude.
The interesting thing is that we aren’t born with this ability. Scientists have conducted a study to prove this. Sally and Anne are in a room with a basket and a box. A 3 year old is observing. Sally puts a marble in the basket and walks out of the room. Anne moves the marble to the box, and then Sally returns to the room. Where will Sally look for the marble. You and I would say she will look in the basket since that is where she left it and wouldn’t know that Ann had moved it. That is Theory of Mind at work. You and I can separate what Sally is thinking and how she is likely to behave from what we know to be true. But, when scientists asked the 3 year old, they say she will look in the box. Since they know it is in the box, they can’t separate the action they would take from the action Sally will take based on her experience.
It is fascinating to think about how much of our social interaction each day is driven by Theory of Mind. Start observing when you are using Theory of Mind to recognize when another person’s behavior is being driven by beliefs that differ from your own or that don’t line up with your reality.
And, lastly, closely aligned with this is the idea of mirror neurons. This is some of the newest science and is still really being disputed in the scientific community. But, what current studies are showing is that we all have an area of the brain called the mirror neurons. When you pick p a peanut, this area lights up. The interesting part is tha t if you see someone else lean over and pick up a peanut, the same are of the brain lights up. Scientists think that this is why we might wince when we see someone else stub their toe.
Theory of the Mind allows us to imagine what the other person’s reaction will be and our mirror neurons mimic that reaction. This whole process allows us to better understand the experience – something like empathy – which results in a better social connection between us and the other person.
So, you might be saying – this is great scientific information about the brain, but this is a business skills podcast – what does brain science have to do with business skills?
Well, there is a lot of scientific evidence that our brains work to ensure our social interactions with others. And, of course, a large percentage of our social interactions with others occurs at work. Your success in your career is going to be somewhat dependent on how well you can execute these social interactions. If you are a developer, your career success will be heavily dependent on your ability to code software. If you are a marketer, your success is heavily dependent on your ability to get leads in the door. But, if you are good at those career-specific skills, but not good at getting along with your coworkers or clients, then you ultimately won’t be as successful as you could be. We need to be able to execute our unique job-related skills within the bigger context of social interactions. Business is wholly dependent on social interactions.
So, understanding how our brain works in these social interactions is important. How we use this knowledge at work can help us build deeper relationships with our coworkers. It can help us influence others and understand why a coworker might behave the way they do.
And, anytime you can improve your interactions with others, you will be more successful in your career.
If you want to learn more about these topics, I recommend the book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Matthew Lieberman.
I teach people how to thrive at work. Let's connect on LinkedIn
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